Lucas Clay Flatt
I lost all of my things once. On a cool night late in the fall of 2005, the stars twinkled merrily until the smoke plume rose from my building and clouded the whole town. I lived in the upstairs of an office building on the town square. Town squares are still prominent here in semi-rural Tennessee, as I imagine they are in semi-rural everywhere. Several hundred people gathered to watch my building burn. “We should have brought marshmallows,” seemed to be the common sentiment.
I paced a loose and shambling circle around the building, chain-smoking and caught in a dream-haze brought on by illness and shock. At one point, my bedroom window exploded. Hollywood flames shot up towards the hazy sky as glass rained onto a closed dumpster two stories down.
I was sick that day. I’d spent the afternoon watching television in a cold-medicine induced daze. At dusk, a friend of mine showed up unannounced to bring me
some herbal tea from the coffee shop on the corner adjacent to my building. I let her in and pretended to drink the tea. We watched television for a polite twenty minutes and fumbled to my bedroom, pawing each other in a shower of clothes.
Fast-forward an hour. I slumped back on my couch, smoking a cigarette, and noticed my neighbor was up to his usual routine: frying pork chops. We chain smoked and watched television The pork chop smell intensified.
“I think he’s barbequing on his couch,” I noted.
“Don’t you smell that?”
“Huh.” She said, and lit another cigarette.
How long did I hear it before recognition set in? The noise, a faint, steady, popping percussion, munched away at the back of my mind. I must have ignored it for several minutes. But the smell was wrong and the noise was wrong and then I was out in the hallway, fumbling with my neighbor’s door before I’d made any real progress placing the sound or smell. I didn’t knock, but tried to open the door. His doorknob, white hot in the pitchblack hallway, singed my fingers. I backed into my own apartment and saw smoke billowing in under my foyer light.
“Darlin, I think my building is on fire. You need to get your things and get out. Please be careful in the hall. It’s dark”
She stared blankly back at me.
“Darlin, I think my building is on fire. You need to get your things…”
She was up and moving.
And then she was gone and I was there, in smoke, and this is where the dream-sense takes over. I wore only boxer shorts and the haze sifted over my skin and I felt like fresh meat until I stumbled into my bed room and dressed in jerky, awkward rips and tugs. The smoke wisped along behind me, filling the corners of my narrow kitchen and pirouetted under the soft fluorescents’ cloudy glass encasements where insects journey to perish in the solar, omnidirectional heat, drying to ashen skeletons, their legs curled up towards the bulb as God.
Omnidirectional heat. The rhythmic, churning crunch began roaring overhead. Black smoke belched through the cracks where ceiling met wall as flames began to consume the space between ceiling and the copper roof which popped and buckled. I cursed and cowered, frozen, surrounded by an inferno I couldn’t see. I coughed and coughed and that snapped me out of paralysis.
I stumbled back into my kitchen, pausing at the sink as if I might fill a tea-cup and make a stand. Instead, I bolted out at a brisk trot, head down, out through my door and down the hallway, blind in black fog I could taste and smell but not see. The flames, still obscured by the burning wall on my right and the ceiling above, boomed and whooshed and churned and the noise, terrible and huge, kept closing in.
I hit a ninety degree turn in the hallway and bounced, ping-ponged off one wall then the other, skidded onto the brink of the stairway and stumbled down the stairs. My eyes burned and watered and I coughed. I hit the landing at full sprint and slammed against the front door, recoiled back senseless and sprawled at the foot of the stairs. I glanced back and saw flames flicker and flash around the bend. I rose, clawed at the door and spilled out and didn’t turn back until I reached the Putnam County Court House lawn across the empty street.
I thought I should probably stop, drop and roll, but, instead, I called 911. “I think my building is on fire.”
But fires happen and this one did and it burned up all my stuff.
“How much stuff did you lose?”
“All of it.”
People usually laughed at that response. Perhaps they expected me to reveal the combined monetary value of my possessions, which I consider crass. That figure remains between me and God…and my insurance agency, of course–you can always buy a new Caravaggio, but it never really replaces the old one in your heart.
I lost my father’s Guild acoustic. I lost three photographs given to me by my best friend’s father, local photographer Jack Stoddart. I found out later, Jack had planned to ask to borrow them back to display in the Smithsonian. Roughly ninety-five percent of my possessions up in smoke. Thankfully, my parents had all of my guitars and my red Doc Martens. But my vinyl LP collection (large enough that I got to talk about it on the 5’o clock Nashville news) and the Stoddart prints and my stuffed platypus were ash.
The platypus really got me. It was my favorite toy from a childhood filled with toys and happiness. I remember the distinct moment I first felt its absence: I reached for a beer in my parent’s refrigerator a few hours after the blaze and it hit me. I excused myself from my brother’s half-assed consolations to smoke a cigarette. Outside, on my parent’s porch, I stood holding a lit cigarette and wept. My brother walked out, saw me crying and did an about face. I composed myself and we got drunk.
After I did the Evening News interview the following day, they let me
go up into the building and look around. The fire inspector told me I had
to go up there while my landlord stood by and nodded gravely.
Several fire-fighters, a few lawyer-types in suits and the other
business owners on my block surrounded me, nodding gravely.
Then he made me sign a waiver that said my family couldn’t sue
if the building collapsed and killed me. I entered the charred
skeleton of the building. My landlord called out, “Be careful.”
The ceiling had burned away and the sun shone down onto the entire expanse of the second floor. The studs and foundation, charred but standing, divided off the floor into a ghoulish blueprint, a project in the early stages of development gone terribly awry. My mother, a closet architecture-buff, used to take my brother and me along on weekend- morning tours of open houses and development sites in subdivisions near our own. But those skeleton sites I remembered where fresh; they smelled of new wood and sawdust. My building was dead and smelled dead. Burnt alive.
I trudged along towards where I thought my apartment would be. The going was slow. I had to climb through burnt out sections of walls and over and under collapsed supports and singed wires. Pretty soon, I lost my bearings and stopped to rest. I considered giving up and climbing back out until I realized I stood leaning on the remnants of my refrigerator.
All I found was one photograph of my brother and me playing a show, him red-faced and screaming into a microphone and me chugging with heavy metal solemnity on a pink Gibson SG. The corner was singed, but the photo was otherwise untouched, save for a feint gloss from the exposure to so much smoke. My mattress springs had melted. I found no traces of my furniture. In the corner of my living room which housed my crates of records, I discovered a thick, shiny black puddle. I didn’t linger.
Two years later, I was accepted into the English grad program at Tennessee
Technical Institute. This event marked the beginning of my career.
I strutted about in self-congratulatory bliss, feeling bright and studious. Career.
I started to read more. Career. Then, I read so much I began
losing sleep. Career. Then I freaked out.
Aptitude and hard work provided, I could now illustrate the rest of my life with bullet-points: MA, PhD, wife, position, publication, divorce, AA, publication. I lost weight, perpetually nauseated by apprehension and self-doubt; I had squeaked through my undergrad years substituting last-minute all-nighters for diligence and missing frequent classes due to frequent partying. I felt woefully under-prepared.
I’d been sitting on a chunk of insurance money left over from a blaze that destroyed my last apartment in a public spectacle that made the Nashville news. So I did what any proud American would do: I bought a lot of stuff. A whole lot. Nearly all of it, I dare say.
Take this file cabinet, for example. Got it last month at Office Max, just before the semester started. It’s black and sturdy, crammed against my desk where I sit typing in my extra bedroom which serves as studio, and, now, office. I also bought a desk, a printer, and a table for the printer. These acquisitions line the south wall. The desk houses a cornucopia of new office supplies: pens, pencils, paper clips, staples, highlighters, etc. This week, probably tomorrow, I’m going back to Office Max to buy a bulletin board.
I had to displace my four guitar amplifiers, wedging three side by side along the east wall and removing the fourth. I filled the walk in closet with guitars. I unwound the serpentine sprawl of cords on my floor and hung them from coat-hooks I installed along the east wall, spaced between a smattering of rock posters and show flyers featuring my band from such exotic locales as Davenport, Iowa and Summerville, South Carolina.
Upon the arrival of the file cabinet, my cast away gear revolted. My Fender Bassman’s power amp blew out, frying my 4X12” Fender speaker cabinet. The power supply for my effects-pedal board disappeared. My Les Paul keeps falling off my only guitar stand (which does not appear to be faulty after rigorous pushing and prodding). Rock-stars have people to file documents for them. This is no Feng Shui crisis; a change is gonna come and my gear doesn’t like that tune.
You should see my living room! It almost seems as if an adult lives here. I found a new couch that matched my tiny, “rust orange” love-seat. The couch is about four times the size of the loveseat, and gives the visual impression that it somehow gave birth to the loveseat silently as I slept one night, though I know full-well I owned the loveseat first. I have a framed, vintage Elvis Costello poster and a portrait of John Hartford taken by local photographer, and friend, Jack Stoddart.
I’ve filled my tiny kitchen with utensils, gizmos, and doodads, including an exorbitantly-priced set of chef’s knives. I began allowing left-over food items to go slightly stale in my fridge so I can cut them up before I throw them out. This is an idiotically wasteful and expensive habit I enjoy immensely. It is great for meditation; I got the idea from a book on Buddhism.
I bought new clothes: shirts and khaki pants, a new belt and a new pair of leather shoes and one red tie I cannot tie and thus haven’t worn yet.
Despite what we care to admit, our possessions do define us. All the anti-consumerism/anti-materialism creeds that help consummate the Bohemian artist’s lofty ideals seem dead in the water. I need my gear to practice or perform and I need my office supplies to write, organize documents, grade papers, and conduct research. That is the world I live in and I like having things.
Any day now, when I’ve marked that last thing off my shopping list, I’ll meet the world with peaceful self-assurance and a sense of artificial importance that will likely help with getting dates, if nothing else. I expect that on that day I will wake up having grown a handsome, if moderate and sensible, mustache-and-goatee set and find I can suddenly tie a tie and play the stock market. And that, I will say, is how I made America work for me. The end.
Before I collected records, guitars or office supplies, I collected action figures. My parents spoiled me. I wanted every figure, every variation of every set. But I didn’t merely collect; I played and played. Dissatisfied with the constraints of the fictive universes to which my toys belonged, I constructed my own: new personas and scenarios. I spilled toys
about my playroom floor to enact epic battles or soap opera story arcs. Abandoned at bedtime, they called to me.
When I grew too old for toys, I boxed them up, betrayed, gathering dust and decaying. Soon enough, I replaced them with guitars, books of nonfiction and reference and office supplies.
I’m now a month into grad school. It hasn’t killed me yet. I still miss my toys and I still write and play and sing. I don’t have a bedtime and often live on little or no sleep, unable to resist that call. My course work and my students’ course work come first. Obligations met, I type at all hours and strum quietly, dazed, like a runner in a race with no end. God, I miss sleep.
I am almost out of insurance money and the influx of new, distracting toys has dwindled. I needed a new distraction from my insomniac journey down career bullet-point lane. So I have begun studying Buddhism. I wouldn’t presume to call myself a Buddhist, just a man in need of
some sort of enlightenment. Meditation is designed to free the mind. I sit and breathe and smile and recite simple poems I’ve read that supposedly calm the mind.
Though I feel silly, it helps, to a degree. So I read on, hoping I’ll turn a page and find the key to freeing my mind of earthly thoughts—that call to reword a sentence or nail an elusive guitar lick. The work, you see: it’s never done. Only what is burned is finished. What remains may haunt forever.
Implementing meditation into my life has not been easy. One book I skimmed suggests I set one room in my apartment apart solely for meditation. In this room, I should have a pillow or chair and a flower and nothing else. The flower should represent Buddha, a replacement for the more traditional statue of Buddha. Apparently, they just don’t make good Buddha’s anymore.
But I don’t have a spare room for meditation. I am already using all of the rooms. I have a half-closet I haven’t found any real use for. When I say a “half-closet” I mean that it is about 4’x4’. I may be able to cram myself in there; I’m roughly 4’x4’ in the Indian-style position. But that would be difficult to accomplish and I can’t imagine how I’d call for help once stuck, not that I’d deserve it.
Some Buddhists give away all of their things. That would free up plenty of space. I wonder how different giving away all of your things and losing them would be? I think both cleanse. I know that having all my possessions burn was cleansing. But after a cleansing, we are wet and naked. I sure felt naked when Channel 4 shoved cameras in my face. I didn’t say much. I wasn’t looking for sympathy or compassion. I wanted my things back, so I bitched about losing my records.
I may have missed the point. Imagine, instead, if I had smiled benevolently into the camera and said, “Yes, all my worldly things have burned, but I remain and may now strike out and replace what’s lost with meaning, not material. I’ll walk the Earth now, doing good works. Whenever you see a cop beating a guy…” and so on. Sure, I would have sounded crazy. “Post-traumatic stress…poor bastard.” But a nut-job who smiles perpetually still helps himself more than the asshole who whines about his record collection.
A few months ago, I spent the afternoon with the same friend who was there
when my old place burned. I hadn’t seen her in some time. She dates some guy
in some other band now. So it goes. But we talk occasionally and she said she
wanted to hear my band’s new recording. In actuality, she needed to make a
few bucks to catch up on rent so I agreed to let her scrub my floors.
It was worth it. I sat on my couch with my feet up and made misogynistic
jokes and she retorted with funnier jokes about me and all
my new stuff. She kept calling me a “bourgie fuck.”
“Bourgie?” I asked.
“Oh,” I said.
Sometimes things don’t work out for a reason.
But other things don’t work out although they should. Like with this other girl—a girl named Sarah—things didn’t work out. We met at a show in Chattanooga about two years before my apartment fire: sometime in 2003, in the spring. She had on a bright orange jacket and a very short skirt and I had on a bright pink t-shirt and a Mohawk and we picked each other out early on and missed most of the bands rolling around in a gravel pit in an ally a few blocks from the bar. I still have the scars on my knees.
Sarah rode the rails. She hailed from Philly but essentially had no home—“that homeless girl,” my parents still call her, though she is long gone. The road was her home, or the rails, and she hunted civil protests, the cause seemingly irrelevant, and spent her time and energy that way. She had a license to drive and operate factory machinery, was trained as a paralegal, could bake, play the violin, and knew several languages.
When the show ended, I told my band and friends that Sarah and I were going for
a walk and we proceeded to trek through the outskirts of the city, heading south
into Georgia. We found a railroad depot where Sarah planned to catch a train in
the morning and lied awake all night, me talking and her playing her violin
beautifully, though she’d only played for a few months and had no teacher.
When the train came in the morning, I helped her gather her things and said,
She grabbed my hands, smiled up at me and asked me to “join her.”
“Just come with me,” she said. “Everything will still be here when you get back.”
I stared back at her, smiling, afraid and stuck.
She laughed and kissed me on the cheek and was gone.
But the road was there: right there, I could look down the rails as they wound through the forests of northern Georgia and led on to no
one knows what. She would have left me soon after the trip started, as what little I gleamed from her nymph-enchantress spirit warned against her utter transience. Alone and at the mercy of the tracks, I might have tucked tail and retreated back to my life. But I could have pushed myself, seen how many steps I could manage without looking over my shoulder. I should have tried.
Just last week, I dumped my ashtray in the kitchen garbage-can while making my rounds before bed. Fifteen minutes later, as I was nodding off, I smelled smoke. I didn’t have a smoke alarm (yeah, I know…), and it was dark, but I caught it in drifts.
I leapt up and into my living room. I didn’t see smoke, but the scent was stronger. In my kitchen, I found smoke, and lots of it. I ran a few useless circles in full panic. Then I remembered the ashtray and realized I’d trashed a lit cigarette.
I dragged the smoldering can outside and blasted it with my hose-pipe, opened all of the windows and doors and sat on my porch chain-smoking until the sun came up. Every once in a while I would rise and stalk through my apartment, silent as a ghost, touching things absently. I kept fighting the urge to pull armfuls of stuff into the center of my living room and lie on top of it like a mother beast in the wild. I didn’t want to be on the news again. I didn’t want to hear any jokes about marshmallows while I waited in grim shock. It isn’t that I couldn’t live without it; I just don’t want to replace it again.
But some Buddhists give up all of their earthly possessions. I’m beginning to question my reliance on toys. Maybe, I could have let my place burn while I tried out meditation. I’m not joking. What would that take, I wonder? True enlightenment? Total defeat? When a person smells smoke where they bed down, the situation calls for fight or flight. An office hallway billowing and crackling made me run. A small paper fire in my kitchen made me fight. If it happened again tonight, I’d put the fire out. But, someday, maybe, I could watch it all burn, breathing and smiling.
My things may support me, but I don’t support anything. I’m not talking about dropping out of school or quitting my band. I am talking about leaving. Just going and deciding all over again what I think life should be step by step. I won’t be leaving tomorrow. But I gave up everything once, and it didn’t kill me. Besides, now I know something essential, something a fire taught me. If that day comes, I’ll have to go empty handed, unencumbered and enriched by the things that settle with the ashes.
©2009 by Lucas Clay Flatt